It might be marketed as a raucous German comedy, but the truth is that Toni Erdmann is a film of almost unbearable sadness. It is filled with lengthy, awkward silences, with mistakes and missed opportunities, with as many failed attempts at levity as successful ones. The familial history of its central characters is never detailed, but always present; one need only look at the glimmer in the performers’ eyes, or listen to the depth of their sigh, as the camera lingers on them for a beat too long.
Yet to deny that Toni Erdmann is a funny film would be silly, for there are moments here more delightful than almost anything this century has produced. At first, the humour comes from Winfried (Peter Simonischek), an ageing father who gets his kicks from playing practical jokes on almost everyone he meets. People tolerate him because they recognise the kind heart behind this defensive goofing; the exception is Ines (Sandra Huller), his daughter. She works as a consultant for an oil company, and with her suit, smartphone, and humourless demeanour, she has a defensive façade of her own. Winfried decides to surprise Ines with a visit; he then makes her life difficult by assuming his wigged, toothy alter-ego Toni Erdmann, an obnoxious life coach, for laughs.
Much of what follows is classic cringe comedy, with costumes, awkward sex, and a sublime take on karaoke. Yet nothing is ever gratuitous – everything is rooted in the very real concerns of the characters. At a key point, there is a transfer of perspective from Winfried to Ines. We see her place of work, dominated by sexist men, that has cultivated her fierce and sometimes bitter behaviour; we therefore empathise with her embarrassment, understand why she lashes out. And there is something very moving about the way that Ines begins to positively respond to Winfried’s pranks – suggesting that the gulf between father and daughter is far from irreparable.
Maren Ade is a phenomenal director, whose touch is subtle but immeasurably impressive. Her process of extensive rehearsals and careful blocking – combined with a naturalistic visual aesthetic – ensures that comedy and pathos are maximised at every turn. In Simonischek and Huller, she has found two expert collaborators; the latter, in particular, turns what could have been an unlikeable character into someone that invokes genuine cheers from her audience. Perhaps it is a little too long, with some digressions making less of an impact than others. Though even the shaggiest of details ultimately add up – in one of the finest climaxes this particular critic has ever seen – and earn every bit of Toni Erdmann’s deserved reputation as a tragicomic modern classic.
Toni Erdmann is released in selected cinemas on 3rd February 2017.
Watch the trailer for Toni Erdmann here: